Helping Britain to make it

by
21 December 2012

Roderic Dunnett considers the work of Basil Spence

© RCAHMS

Draughtsman's eye: design for the Hall of the Future at the "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the V&A, London, perspective by Basil Spence, 1946

Draughtsman's eye: design for the Hall of the Future at the "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the V&A, London, perspective by Basil Spence, 19...

Basil Spence: Buildings and projects
Louise Campbell, Miles Glendinning, and Jane Thomas, editors
RIBA Publishing £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50
(978-1-85946-309-3)
(Use code CT524)  

THIS is massive tome, running to 19 chapters, and chock-full of superb illustrations, arising out of an Arts and Humanities Research Council project led by Louise Campbell of the University of Warwick and her two scholarly collaborators, who contribute substantially to the book.

One interesting thing about Sir Basil Spence (1907-76) - quite apart from his crowning glory, the new Coventry Cathedral, characterised here as "the single biggest ikon of post-war reconstruction" in Britain - is, the book indicates, the ways in which his career spans several distinct eras and trends.

Of these, the most significant was the keen interest that he showed, during its 1930s heyday, in the Modernist German-based Bauhaus movement, led by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, whose work he visited (soon after his honeymoon), and from which he de- rived much of the ethic of social responsibility which informed his work in post-war Britain, including his contributions to the 1946 "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the 1951 Festival of Britain, at which Spence was a leading light.

He didn't build only ecclesiastical marvels: Scottish country houses, including quite self-indulgent castellated wonders built from scratch, entered his remit, as work flourished after the war. He built, and helped revolutionise, army barracks and parliamentary buildings. By 1929, he was assisting Sir Edwin Lutyens, and some of the latter's versatility and good judgement washed off on the younger man. Spence's superb draughtsmanship extended to painting: some rewarding self-portraits are included here, and his youthful sketches - of Pugin's work, for instance - already look masterly.

Every facet of his work is explored in invigorating detail here, in a style that is as accessible as it is academic. This applies to all of the contributors; and the balance is about right, too: the early years get 40 pages, the 1950s 80, the '60s 100, and the '70s - up to Spence's death, aged only 69 - a further 30 pages.

The index is thorough, and nicely presented in four columns. Coventry gets a closely argued 32-page chapter from Louise Campbell herself; the illustrations of various stages in the process stand testimony to the complexity, and the triumph, of the proposed, emerging, and finished project, the result of a wildly contested architectural competition announced in 1951.

You don't get a better imprimatur than that of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who have supported the project so much as to publish the book. In a spectac-ular large format, it is, surely, one of the landmark books on British architecture of the past half-century. Recommending it very highly is a pleasure and a duty.

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